I wrote this little piece for a science writing class I took my last year in a neuroscience PhD program at University of Colorado, Boulder. [picture above is a Boulder morning fog]. The class was supposed to help me compare a career in science writing vs. academics.  I loved the science writing class – but went academic.  16 years later, shit.  Better late than never?

(So this was a fascinating adventure, at the National Ice Core Laboratory in Denver, where I visited in 1999.  So it is a bit outdated, yet still relevant).  

In the year 1976, while the majority of Americans were celebrating the 200 year anniversary of our nation’s independence, a much larger event went completely unnoticed.   In 1976, humans attained world domination.  Although most people assume we have dominated the earth for many centuries, Jim White, a local paleoclimatologist, views world domination from a different perspective.  During a symposium on the University of Colorado campus yesterday, White explained how it was approximately the year 1976 when humans surpassed the ocean’s plankton and the land’s soil bacteria as the species with the largest influence on the world’s environment.  “We beat ‘em,” White exclaimed.   “We now dominate the climate system…the atmospheric system… land use… and just about every other global or regional system.”

White is one of many paleoclimatologists whose job it is to investigate changes in our planet’s environment over hundreds of thousands of years.  They accomplish this task by collecting ice core samples, sometimes as deep as 3000 meters, from giant ice sheets in places like Antarctica and Greenland.  Through measuring various chemicals in the many layers of ice, White and other scientists can determine the earth’s changing atmospheric and climate patterns.

Part of what White and other paleoclimatologists look for in the different layers of ice cores are the levels of greenhouse gases and aerosols.  The greenhouse gases, such as water vapor and carbon dioxide, are responsible for trapping the sun’s heat energy, while the aerosol’s, such as sulfates, are responsible for reflecting it.  The level of these two elements, represented in each layer of the ice cores, allow very accurate modeling of the earth’s atmosphere over the years.  It is the delicate balance of greenhouse gases, aerosols, and the sun which make earth inhabitable for life to exist.   White explained that many interesting trends in the climate have been revealed by the ice cores; however he believes that no trend is more troubling than what has occurred in the last fifty years.

In the process of humans becoming the most dominant species on the planet, White says that we have put “greenhouse gases at a level that they have not been at for at least 400,000 years.”   He added that “most of the damage was done in the last fifty years.”  While the existence of greenhouse gases prevent the earth from plummeting to -20 degrees below zero, they can also reach excess levels which White said could lead to “ocean boiling,” a condition which currently exists on the planet Venus.  There is no consensus among paleoclimatologists as to what type of climate change this trend in greenhouse gases will produce, but there is a unanimous agreement that earth is in store for a major climate change.

White’s research during the past fifteen years has focused on determining what exactly a major climate change might look like.  The most startling finding is that the climate is not limited to slow; subtle changes over periods of thousands of years, but can do so very rapidly.  White showed how ice core records from 11,700 years ago display a 30 degree change in less than a 15 year period, and he said this pattern shows up over and over.  White said this is like “taking you from Miami to past Montreal” in average temperature.

What effect will this climate change have on us and how can we prepare for it?  First, White said that that it will cost us a lot of money and second, it will force us to adapt, something White views as “the injustice of climate change.”  However, he added that this can be a valuable process as “it unwittingly makes us stronger”.  We can only hope that as the world’s new dominant species, that which made us stronger does not kill us.

  • Matthew Will